I find deconversion stories fascinating, although not for the reasons atheists would hope. They fascinate me because of how they reinforce the Christian worldview, while demonstrating what passes for thinking among atheists—particularly apostates.
Today I came across Why I am not a Christian by a fellow named Aaron, who starts off:
I recently renounced my Christian faith, after years of doubt, and months of serious study. I had been a Christian for all of my life, and the decision didn’t come easily or lightly.
Note how Aaron has considered himself a Christian all his life. And he reached this decision to renounce his faith after “months” of “serious study.” So we should expect a pretty thoughtful, intelligent, careful case here…right?
Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just see how he does. In his own words, “Specifically, this is Biblical Christianity, summarized:”
For reasons unknown to us, this God, who lacked nothing, needed nothing, and had no reason to want anything, nevertheless decided to create humanity. Man was a creature which He (being God,) knew would reject Him almost immediately, thanks to the deceitful snake which He would place in the garden alongside man (the snake was also created by God.)
In terms of a sophisticated rejection of Christianity, this isn’t a promising start. How could someone who studied this issue “seriously” for “months” think that we have no idea why God created us, and that indeed the idea is inexplicable given God’s own nature? Any Christian with even a passing knowledge of systematic theology would know that God created man, and everything, for his own glory. (His “glory” is simply his revealed greatness; or, in more theological terms, the manifestation of his perfection.) Isaiah 43 hardly makes a secret of this. Neither does Ephesians 1 (notice verses 6, 12, 14). Revelation 4:11 ties God’s creation to his glory. So does Psalm 19:1. And Romans 11:36 couldn’t be more clear.
And it’s not as if you have to scour the Bible to discover this. Even if you can’t be bothered acquainting yourself with the historic confessions, a cursory google immediately yields two articles that discuss the topic and give a clear answer—Bible.org’s For what purpose did God create the world? and John Piper’s God Created Us for His Glory.
This is what passes for the “serious study” behind the difficult, weighty decision of apostasy.
Notice also the childish characterization of the serpent as a “snake.” This is par for the course from village atheists, but not from people who have done serious study on the topic. There are obvious, thorny problems with the serpent being a talking snake, and the evidence indicates that he was actually an angelic being.
When man inevitably sinned by accepting the snake’s advice, God cursed man and all of humanity, and sentenced them to everlasting torment in hell fire – (though the idea of eternal hell fire wouldn’t quite solidify in the minds of humans for a few thousand more years.)
Even when he gets things sort of right, Aaron puts a simple-minded sarcastic spin on his description. As someone who has studied and thought deeply about this, and not made his decision lightly, you would think he would be more even-handed in presenting the Christian narrative. It’s almost as if there is a heavy undercurrent of contempt and incredulity actually driving his decision, which he can’t quite filter out of his post. He wants to look like he made a rational, carefully-deliberated choice, but it’s such a thin pretext that the charade is obvious by the third paragraph.
For the record, all ancient Near-Eastern cultures had some concept of an afterlife, with punishments and rewards, but the specific concept of Gehenna (hell) does develop over time. That said, it was well-developed prior to the first century—the New Testament inherits its concept of hell from Second Temple Judaism.
At this time, God set a plan in place to send his own Son, Jesus, to redeem mankind. In the meantime, he noticed that mankind had become mostly evil, and so decided to do a reset by drowning nearly every living being on the earth in a great flood. The few remaining humans then began to continue their evil ways almost immediately.
It was not “at this time” that God instituted the plan of redemption, but “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20; cf Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8). Does Aaron not know his Bible at all? How could he really have been a Christian all these years without getting even the basic components of the Christian narrative right? The timing of God’s redemptive plan isn’t exactly a minor detail—it thoroughly informs our understanding of his purpose in creation, and his relation to the fall. If we know that he planned to redeem mankind before he even created the world, and we know that he created the world to reveal his perfection, then we can naturally conclude that he intended the fall precisely to set up the world in such a way that it could be redeemed and reveal his manifold perfections—whether in vessels of mercy, or in vessels of wrath (Romans 9:22–23). Mind you, this is hard to hear if you are a vessel of wrath—but that’s no excuse for not at least getting it basically right.
Moreover, God didn’t “notice” that mankind had become “mostly” evil. Applying terms like “noticed” to an omniscient being who knows all things from eternity is just petulant strawmannery. Why is Aaron strawmanning the Christian narrative he claims to be summarizing? And mankind was not “mostly” evil by any stretch; the Bible takes some pains to emphasize that “every inclination of the thoughts of his mind was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
Additionally, He instructed and blessed his chosen people to pillage and plunder neighboring nations, killing men, women and children. This was presumably to help preserve the line of his chosen people who would eventually give rise to Jesus.
That’s one reason. Another is that the neighboring nations, as even Aaron acknowledges, were more than just a little evil. I’m not sure why Aaron seems to treat Israel putting women and children to the sword at God’s command as worse than God himself drowning women and children, but that’s the kind of confused moral reasoning you tend to expect from apostates who have rejected the source of morality itself. (If you’re going to respond to this comment, btw, you’d better be damned sure you understand the distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology, because I’m not referring to the latter.)
Now, Jesus would arrive as a charismatic Jewish leader, among many other charismatic Jewish leaders, and like many others, would perform miracles to show his power. He would then die a criminal’s death after angering the local Roman authorities, after a 3-year traveling ministry. A small group of his followers would claim to have seen him after his death (he conveniently slipped off to Heaven before any skeptics saw him.)
Firstly, Why does Aaron think Jesus was charismatic? Where is that in the Bible? On the contrary, Isaiah 53:2–3 says that “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him. He was despised and rejected by people.” Doesn’t sound very charismatic to me. Maybe Aaron is projecting his perception of modern evangelical rockstar pastors onto Jesus? Can he not tell the difference between a 21st century stage and a 1st century rooftop? His continual inability to describe the Christian narrative which he is supposedly summarizing might give us a hint as to why he defected. Indeed, Aaron is just one in a long line of apostates I can name who is convinced he understands the religion he rejected, yet can’t even get the basics right when asked to summarize it.
Secondly, I can’t help wondering where these other miracle-working Jewish leaders came from. Can Aaron provide documentation of their existence? Did any of them rise from the dead?
Thirdly, Jesus didn’t anger the local Roman authorities. He angered the Sanhedrin. That might seem like splitting hairs, but at this point it is just further evidence of Aaron’s chronic inability to get basic details right about the position he supposedly studied, and has so carefully rejected.
Fourthly, a “small group” of his followers claimed to see him after his death? 1 Corinthians 15:5–9 observes that, “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive (though some have fallen asleep), then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Remembering that there were probably uncounted women and children present, is 500 men a “small group” in Aaron’s estimation? And is he not aware that James and Thomas were both skeptics? Maybe they don’t count because they weren’t “real” skeptics, since they allowed themselves to be persuaded by evidence?
Fifthly, and not to nitpick, but isn’t Aaron here describing the skeptical narrative? He said at the beginning he was going to summarize the Christian narrative—but here we are treated to his pet views about Jesus. An apostate’s incompetent handling of the historical record is hardly representative of the Christian narrative. Why does Aaron have so much trouble keeping this basic distinction clear in his mind? Is it because he doesn’t actually know the Christian narrative? Or is it that he is so prejudiced against it that he can’t even describe it when he sets out to do exactly that?
I wonder what Aaron’s explanation is for the rapid rise of Christianity, if in fact those 500+ eyewitnesses were all just lying? Why did so many of them, not least the apostles, choose to die in imaginative ways rather than admit they told porkies about Jesus? Does Aaron have a plausible explanation for this—or does he just consider any explanation more plausible than a miracle, because, you know, “miracles don’t happen”?
Now, God’s plan for mankind’s redemption (from the sinful nature he inherited thanks to the snake which God put in the garden) is this: Jesus’s death would be the atonement for man’s sins, but to receive the benefit of this atonement, man must believe in Jesus and his works, and commit to serving and loving him.
Aaron still can’t resist lacing his description with snark, as if we should take the Christian view as inherently ridiculous—but at least he is basically right about this. I feel a slow clap coming on.
Of course, God would not communicate this requirement directly to all of humanity in a way we could all clearly see – instead, he would inspire dozens of other men to write these requirements in various books and letters to each other. Some of these books would then be bound together after a couple centuries, and then argued about among a church of believers who had started dividing into various sects almost immediately after Jesus’s death.
Once again, this isn’t the Christian narrative. Apparently Aaron has simply given up the pretense at this point and slipped straight into skeptical mocking mode. But aside from his own sense of incredulity, which is not exactly good evidence for anything, why should we think that the Bible is not a form of communication which anyone can clearly understand? And what do divisions among Christians have to do with this? Does Aaron think the gospel is not clear in the Bible? Does he think we cannot determine the meaning of anything? Perhaps he is a postmodernist. I guess he won’t mind me “bringing my own meaning” to his blog post and interpreting it as a wholesale endorsement of Christianity then.
During these centuries of church splitting and segmenting, God would not set the record straight among his followers about which set of beliefs and doctrines were the true ones. For that matter, he would not make himself known at all to humanity going forward, beyond the occasional report of minor miracles. For the most part, God would operate in the minds of his followers from this point forward, through the Holy Spirit.
Why should God “set the record straight” when he has already given us a fully sufficient record in the Bible? Aaron presupposes that God did not want the church exactly the way it is. Does he have any evidence of this? Obviously he can’t appeal to the Bible without cutting the legs out from his own objection. So his argument seems to boil down to the same thing that I hear constantly from apostates: “Well, that’s not how I would have done it.” Thanks for clarifying that the real reason you abandoned Christianity is that you think you’re wiser than God.
I also have to point out how silly this representation of “God not making himself known at all to humanity going forward” is. Not only has God made himself known in the person of Jesus, recorded publicly for everyone, but he repeatedly makes himself known by miraculous power whenever his gospel is brought to unreached groups (how does Aaron think Christianity is spreading in China?) and of course by indwelling his chosen people as Aaron himself admits! In other words, God is doing the opposite of not making himself known, by Aaron’s own admission. Maybe the problem Aaron has is that God has not made himself known to Aaron. That’s unfortunate, of course, but hardly an excuse for Aaron’s contradicting himself within the space of a paragraph.
Given the circumstances of Jesus’s arrival, the lack of any actual visible evidence of this living God in the world, the lack of knowledge of him in remote corners of the world, the lack of historical evidence surrounding his miracles, the contradictions between the various books of the Bible, and the fact that many of the Bible’s claims about history and the nature of reality seem to be at odds with practically every other field of science and inquiry, the majority of humanity has not accepted Jesus, and is therefore doomed to suffer for all of eternity.
For someone who has studied so hard and thought so deeply, Aaron is surprisingly good at imitating the facile objections of new atheists like Dawkins and Harris. Let’s just quickly assess his claims:
- Lack of visible evidence for God in the world? That’s a joke, right? The world itself is evidence for God. Our ability to reason, both logically and morally, is evidence for God. Miracles are evidence for God. The Bible is evidence for God. I just can’t take anyone seriously when they say there is “no” evidence for God. Even if you think these kinds of evidence are ultimately uncompelling, they are obviously still present. You have to be a complete partisan hack to pretend otherwise.
- Lack of knowledge of God in remote corners of the world? Assuming this is true—which is tendentious at best—how does Aaron get from this to “therefore, God does not exist”? I can only imagine that his argument would include the premise, “If I were God…” Pardon me for finding that slightly side-splitting. I really have to bite my tongue here because this is so comically typical of apostates, and yet it is so transparently vapid. This is what passes for rational, critical thought among all the “ex-Christians” I’ve met.
- Lack of historical evidence surrounding Jesus’ miracles? I can only assume Aaron is so ignorant of historiography and/or what constitutes evidence that he isn’t even aware of his ignorance. How else could he make a claim like this? We have multiple eyewitness testimonies to Jesus’ miracles, as well as indirect lines of evidence (such as the apostles’ willingness to all die rather than admit a hoax). You might as well claim we have no historical evidence for the existence of Alexander the Great. Actually, that would be a lot more plausible than claiming there’s no evidence for Jesus’ miracles.
- Biblical contradictions? If I had a penny for every time someone claimed the Bible was full of contradictions, but then couldn’t even name a single one, let alone defend it against careful exegesis, I would be, like, a hundred bucks richer. Maybe Aaron will enlighten us as to which “contradictions” he has in mind. But…let’s be honest. He hasn’t exactly impressed us with his ability to carefully and accurately represent the Bible so far, so why think he’ll start now?
- The Bible at odds with science? What does Aaron have in mind? Hebrew cosmology? That’s inept. Evolution? But DNA is probably the best evidence for intelligent design there is. As with apostates I’ve personally spoken to, Aaron is good at regurgitating the standard party propaganda while insisting that he has carefully studied these things. The lack of free thinking among freethinkers is conspicuous to everyone but themselves.
Finally, he concludes…
But being all powerful and all-knowing, this was God’s plan all along. He loved his creation and desired to be with it, but chose to weed out all but the few who decide to follow on faith.
Notice how Aaron isn’t even objecting to election or predestination. His understanding of Christianity is so jejune that after all that deep study and careful thinking he can’t even rise to the level of critiquing it on its own terms. He has to resort to kindergarten Christianity. He spent his serious study time poring over a bad children’s picture-Bible. God just wants to wuv evewywun, but lots of people don’t wuv him, and it makes him saaaaad, even though he could help them out by being their fwend.
It’s like Ricky Gervais. He loves to talk about how he became an atheist at age eight. He boasts about it, as if it’s a point of pride. Yet most people don’t tend to trust the judgments of eight-year olds on much of anything, let alone religion and philosophy. For skeptics, however, fourth-grade religious studies is as good as it gets. That’s the mental age they operate at. Suffice to say, although people like Gervais and our new apostate Aaron might give a primary-schooler pause for thought…grown-up Christians just aren’t quite as impressed.